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Witch or Herbalist? 'Ursula' is finally retunred to St.Osyth and laid to rest

Life in 16th century Essex was quite different from the village it is today with rumour-mongering and superstition having dire consequences for two St Osyth women, Ursula Kemp and Elizabeth Bennett.

Ursula Kemp, like many women of the time made a humble living through attending births, wet nursing babies and treating the sick with herbal potions and lotions.

© ursulakemp.co.uk, John Worland. 'Ursula Kemp, Healing' © ursulakemp.co.uk, John Worland. 'Thomas Rabett, giving evidence'

Unfortunately when Ursula's services were rejected by a pregnant neighbour in favour of another 'midwife,' she exchanged such harsh words with the mother to be that when the young baby went on to die by allegedly falling from its cradle it was suspected a curse had been placed on the infant. After that villagers began to suspect that Ursula could treat or induce sickness and lameness at will and she soon became a prime target for the 'Witch Hunter', landowner and magistrate Brian D'Arcy who forced Ursula's son Thomas to give evidence against his own Mother!

Elizabeth Bennett was also implicated and according to archives the two of them along with twelve other St Osyth natives, were tried at Chelmsford Court on 29th March 1582. Although held in Colchester Castle and tried in Chelmsford, the place of their execution is not clear. It may have been Chelmsford but it wasn't unusual for women accused of witchcraft to be hanged in their village and then buried in local unconsecrated ground.

In 1921 two skeletons were discovered in a garden by a Mr Brooker, a tenant in St Osyth carrying out some building work. One skeleton was badly damaged. The bodies were clearly not near a burial ground and Mr Brooker having some knowledge of the history of witches in the village decided to cash in by arranging visits from local people wanting to see the 'witches' skeleton. Only the house burning down in an unexplained fire in 1932 halted the interest in what was now believed to be the body of Ursula Kemp and the remains were reburied at the site.

More than 30 years later redevelopment prompted the deliberate, but now believed illegal, exhuming of the skeleton but this time there was little interest in it becoming a local attraction and the bones were sold to the Witchcraft museum in Boscastle owned by Cecil Williamson who promised he would safeguard her and not allow her exploitation again. However, before Williamson's death he sold the museum but interestingly 'Ursula' was not included in the sale. Her last 'owner' was the artist and eccentric Robert Lenkiewicz who had a fascination for obsessions including witchcraft and the occult. Lenkiewicz kept Ursula in his library along with the embalmed body of a local tramp. A prolific painter, Lenkiewicz's life was rather complex and when he died heavily in debt the skeleton of Ursula became tied up in the wrangles of his estate.

Documentary maker John Worland, and co-director of the 2007 film Witch Finder, based on the Matthew Hopkins witch trials, has been tirelessly researching the history of Witches in East Anglia in the 16th and 17th centuries. It is thanks to him that now Ursula's rather unfortunate life, death and subsequent journey has been unearthed. John spent many hours negotiating to have her remains released by the trustees of Lenkiewizc's estate and from then he began to explore the process of what he and many others believe is the right end to Ursula's journey - a peaceful reburial back in St Osyth. John, with the help of carbon dating, can prove that the skeleton does date back to the 16th century and that there are indeed remnants of iron nails in the bones.

© ursulakemp.co.uk, John Worland. 'Ursula Kemp, Examination'

In co-operation with St Osyth Parish Council, a plot with a north-south orientation was located in unconsecrated land and on April 15th with both Pagan and Christian representatives present, the skeleton of 'Ursula' was finally laid to rest as a poignant and symbolic gesture for her and her fellow accused.

All content © Ursula Kemp .co.uk 2012
John Worland